The Global Light Conspiracy Exposed: How The Phoebus Cartel Found Its Master in China

1936 Shenbao newspaper advertisement for the Phoebus Cartel, represented by the China United Lamp Co. with an original Chinese Philips light bulb. From the MOFBA collection.
1936 Shenbao newspaper advertisement for the Phoebus Cartel, represented by the China United Lamp Co. with an original Chinese Philips light bulb. From the MOFBA collection.

Behold an original 1930s Philips light bulb from our collection. If you look closely, you’ll however notice a strange ad behind it: A hint at the largest global business conspiracy you have never heard of and that found its end by what eventually unfolded in China.

The incandescent light bulb famously had many fathers, but ultimately it was Joseph Swan in the UK and Thomas Edison in the US, who were first credited with commercializing their respective patents in the late 1870s. In 1889 Edison rolled up his various electricity companies to form General Electric and in Britain Edisons and Swans companies merged into the Edison and Swan United Electric Company. But soon new competitors emerged across Europe who continued to improve light bulb technology. They included Philips, founded in 1891 in the Netherlands, the Hungarian Tungsram bulb patented in 1904 and the Osram incandescent lamp developed in Germany in 1906. Especially the innovation of using a tungsten rather than a carbon filament created lamps that lasted longer and produced brighter light than the original inventions by Swan and Edison.

But electric lightning was far from limited to the US and Europe and it quickly spread around the world - including to China. In fact, already on April 14th 1879 it is reported that the first engine-drive electric generator arrived in Shanghai and on May 20th, “a pretty successful attempt at utilizing the electric light was made at Messrs Fogg’s pontoon” on the occasion of public illuminations to welcome General Grant, ex-President of the United States. In May 1882 the Shanghai Electric Power Company was publicly floated and electric light bulbs soon illuminated the public spaces of the Far-Eastern trading port instead of the previously used gas lighting. It took some time for the new technology to find its way into the homes of Shanghai residents, until a decade after the turn of the century we can find first consumer advertisements in Chinese newspapers for light bulbs from among others Osram (1910), Ditmar Brünner (1912), Westinghouse (1913) and GE (1914). 

For close to 40 years these light bulbs had been imported to China, but in 1917 GE was the first manufacturer to establish a production plant locally in Shanghai.


Finally, in 1918 first Chinese advertisements for Philips light bulbs appeared, followed by the incorporation of the "Philips China Company" in Shanghai during October 1923. 

1920s Chinese Philips advert & bulb. From the MOFBA collection.
1920s Chinese Philips advert & bulb. From the MOFBA collection.

After WWI light bulb technology continued to improve and the world’s leading producers were increasingly faced with a dilemma: By the early 1920s bulbs already lasted for more than 2,500 hours and it was foreseeable that with technological progress, lifetime could be extended even further.


Great news for consumers, but not so much for the manufacturers who ultimately made more money, the more often bulbs had to be replaced. 

In retrospect the solution agreed on by all the leading global lightbulb makers was as shocking as it was genius. On 23 December 1924, top representatives from Osram, Philips, Tungsram, General Electric, Japan’s Tokyo Electric and the French Compagnie des Lampes, gathered in Geneva for a meeting that would alter the world for decades to come. The secretive group founded the Phoebus Cartel, a supervisory body that would carve up the worldwide incandescent lightbulb market, with each national and regional zone assigned its own manufacturers and production quotas. It was the first cartel in history to enjoy a truly global reach. Most importantly, however, the cartel’s members all agreed to limit light bulb lifetime to only 1,000 hours – much less than what was possible at the time. This industrial strategy, today called planned obsolescence, was sold to the public under the guise of more energy efficient lamps that were brighter than those of independent manufacturers. Conveniently, the cartel’s bulbs were also significantly more expensive.

In China the cartel manifested itself in the form of CULCO, the China United Lamp Co. (中和灯泡公司), which was incorporated in Shanghai in 1932. The joint venture agreed to no longer import its respective brands but manufacture the light bulbs of Osram, Philips and later Tungsten in GE’s Shanghai factory to reduce costs, increase margins and at the same time introduce the consumer marketing strategies already perfectionated by the Phoebus Cartel in Europe and the US. 

Following this blueprint, the cartel contracted local agencies & publishers - foremost the premier Shanghai ad agency conglomerate, the British Millington Ltd. - to conceive and execute an unprecedented publicity campaign across all imaginable advertising and PR channels. With classic deceptive marketing tactics, the now locally produced brands of the cartel members jointly announced a price reduction, emphasized the superior brightness and energy efficiency of their bulbs, all while warning consumers of lower quality “imitations and substitutes”. This explains how on the newspaper advertisement from our collection that we initially showed, all four brands are advertised alongside each other. Unmentioned of course remained the fact, that CULCO’s bulbs lasted only around a third of the time of what was technically possible. It surely also came in handy, that the Shanghai Power Company which generated all of the cities electricity, had been one of Millington’s largest accounts for many years.

Thanks to CULCO’s own customer magazine “Light” (中和灯泡杂志), newspaper clippings and surviving copies of Millington’s “Milligram” periodicals, from our collection, we can unravel the full scale of the cartels nefarious advertising practices in China. The campaigns included countless press releases (which the papers reprinted verbatim…), newspaper adverts, magazine ads,...

...outdoor advertisements on buses and billboards, CULCO’s branded company cars that frequented the streets of Shanghai,... 

...state of the art window display advertisements as well as radio spots on the Millington-controlled XCBL station. 


When Shanghai’s most modern and luxurious new skyscraper, the Park Hotel, was opened in 1934 it was announced to be illuminated with Philips and Osram lamps at night. The JSS building, which housed the hotel had also been a client of Millington.

CULCO was also a major exhibitor at Millington’s tremendously successful Better Homes exhibition in 1937.


Besides praising its own brands, a second category of advertisements by CULCO engaged in ruthless fear appeal and scare tactics aiming to discredit independent bulb manufactures. These included ominous illustrations of housewives falling down stairs because of defect bulbs, office workers ruining their eyesight and families shocked by their high electricity bills.

In summary, the publicity campaigns which seemingly were a glowing success, were best summarized by how the local press parroted the cartels key PR talking points as “The activities of the China General Edison Co. and the China United Lamp Company are an excellent example of how foreign technical knowledge and scientific achievements can best be made use of for the benefit of China". Except, that the cartel had underestimated the ingenuity of Asian entrepreneurs who soon threw a monkey wrench in its world domination plans. As the cartel continued its policy of artificially elevated prices while limiting lifetimes, competitors spotted a golden opportunity to sell cheaper alternatives. The majority of inexpensive bulbs that flooded the world market were from small, family-owned workshops in Japan where the annual output of incandescent bulbs grew from 45 million to 300 million between 1922 to 1933. As a direct result, the cartels global sales volume dropped by more than 20 percent in the early 1930s —even as the overall market for lighting was growing. A last hope was the largest consumer market in the world: China. By the mid-1930s, anti-Japanese sentiment in China severely affected the sale of Japanese products and sales of bulbs from Japan dropped over 90%, leaving the field wide open to the foreign monopoly of CULCO. 

But as historian Ghassan Moazzin describes it in his excellent article here, it was in China where Phoebus found its ultimate master who out-lobbied the cartel with even more effective tactics. Oppel Electric Manufacturing Co. Ltd.  (中国亚浦耳电器股份有限公司) was established in Shanghai in 1921 by Hu Xiyuan and subsequently grew to become the most important Chinese manufacturer of light bulbs. According to Moazzin, the company’s peculiar name stemmed from a German engineer called Opel who owned a small light bulb factory in Shanghai, but sold his machinery and know-how to Hu in 1922. The success of Opel lay in both the fact that its bulbs were of similar quality, but around only half the price of CULCO’s as well as the company’s persistent nationalist lobbying. Hu was also the founding member and chairman of the Shanghai Electrical Appliances Manufacturers Association (上海市电器制造业同业公会), which engaged in collaborative advertising just like CULCO but also aggressive government business development. In the end public institutions and municipalities were the largest purchasers of electric lamps in China which was exploited by Oppel, playing up the national character of their products. 

What ultimately killed Phoebus however, was World War II, which arguably started in China in 1937 with the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. As the members’ host countries went to war, close coordination became impossible and the cartels agreement was nullified in 1940. When its mischievous practices were exposed after the war in 1953, General Electric and other leading American manufacturers were finally banned from limiting the life of light bulbs. Yet to this day countless cases of planned obsolescence, be it printer cartridges or mobile phone battery performance, exist and the Phoebus cartel’s history serves as an important reminder of how consumers can be deceived by big industry.  

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